Hellmann's mayonnaise, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2013, is a pioneer among mayonnaises, a creamy, tangy conqueror of bellies, hearts and nations.
Today, mayonnaise is the top-selling condiment in the nation, and Hellmann's (known as Best Foods in the Western United States) supplies nearly half of that market. For many mayo lovers, Hellmann's is like home: They might range far and wide, making their own or buying boutique brands, but they'll always come back to Hellmann's. Like a first kiss, Hellmann's is what got them into the game and has become the standard by which all others are judged.
This isn't just my opinion — people whose job it is to have a refined palate wax poetic about Hellmann's.
"Hellmann's is the perfect gateway mayonnaise," says Scott Jones, chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park in Boston. "That perfection is largely derived from its consistency, texture and sweetness."
Jones uses Hellmann's as a yardstick for his own frequent and creative mayo-making. "When I make mayonnaise at work," he said, "when it comes out looking like Hellmann's, I know I've done it correctly."
Part of the appeal of Hellmann's is its inoffensiveness, its lack of off-putting flavors or textural qualities, what Jones calls its "overall approachability." There is no taste of oxidized oil. It's not too sweet or sour. But neither is it bland. It has personality, zing and the inscrutable quality known as "amplitude."
In a 2010 New Yorker piece on ketchup, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that amplitude is "the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that 'bloom' in the mouth. ...When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt."
Joanne Seltsam is a professional taster with Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that focuses on how the senses relate to consumer purchasing decisions. She specializes in descriptive analysis, or the identification of attributes and their intensities in food. Seltsam considers Hellmann's a member of an exclusive group of products that are so refined and sophisticated it's hard for the average palate to break them down into their component flavors.
"It is so difficult for even a trained person to break down, to find the line between where one attribute stops and the other starts," Seltsam said. "It's what we would call a beautifully made product. It just tastes like mayonnaise. All the flavors blend together. They're balanced. Nothing sticks out. Everything is appropriate. ... Hellmann's is just so interwoven that tasters have a very difficult time saying anything other than 'it tastes like mayonnaise.'"
Seltsam compares Hellmann's to Coca-Cola: Both are flavors that many can identify but few can describe.
I wondered if Hellmann's, like Coke, is made according to some special, closely guarded secret that is crucial to its success, some formula or process that sets it apart from the competition. I reached out to Unilever in hopes it would, if not divulge, then at least acknowledge such a secret. No dice.
"Hellmann's is simply a recipe that people want to eat," senior marketing director Brian Orlando said via email. " ... After a century, we're pretty proud to say that slight recipe tweaks have been made throughout the years, but eggs, oil and vinegar have always been three primary ingredients in Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise."
There probably are a lot of food executives who would like to know what those "slight tweaks" have been.
But even left to their own devices, other brands have started nipping at the heels of Hellmann's. Kraft Mayo has been around only since 1988 but has claimed nearly 24 percent of the market. And some think other mayos have come close to cracking the Hellmann's formula.
An October issue of Consumer Reports compared Hellmann's to various store-brand mayos, enlisting about 50 employees who purported to be loyal to Hellmann's to do a blind taste test. The survey found that 41 percent actually preferred the Target brand of mayonnaise, Market Pantry, to Hellmann's.
This result was hard for me to believe, so my wife helped me conduct a blind taste test between Hellmann's (Best Foods, actually) and Market Pantry mayo. I also included Kraft Mayo in the trial.
Even though I hadn't gone home to Hellmann's in a while, it was quite easy for me to distinguish it from the other two. Hellmann's had a sharper, more piercing flavor that came together as if on the head of a pin, with no discernible oil flavor.
Market Pantry and Kraft Mayo tasted like duller versions of Hellmann's. While they didn't possess off-notes, there was an oily flavor. Market Pantry and Kraft Mayo were much harder to distinguish from each other than from Hellmann's, despite Market Pantry having 20 more calories per tablespoon than Hellmann's and Kraft.
But when served with food — Indian leftovers, to be exact — the differences among the mayos became less obvious.